Defenders of the country?

It seems that whatever happens in Yemen, any victory is likely to prove to be a pyrrhic one, writes Stasa Salacanin. As a UN panel of experts recently reported, Yemen as a state essentially no longer exists and no party to the conflict has the political support or military strength to reunite the country

By Stasa Salacanin

Last December, Houthi fighters killed Yemen′s former president after he attempted to end a long-standing alliance with the Houthis.  Saleh, a genuinely Machiavellian politician with an outstanding ability to build alliances, apparently made the deal with the Saudis hoping it would pave the way back to power – either for him or his son Ahmed Ali.

Yemen′s incumbent president for 33 years, Saleh was forced to resign following the popular uprising in 2012, when he was replaced by his deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Prior to his assassination, the Houthi-Saleh alliance had fought together against the Saudi-led coalition, the latter shoring up Hadi′s internationally recognised government. Despite a long history of mutual distrust and violent conflict, Saleh and the Houthis became allies in 2014, joining forces in an attempt to overthrow President Hadi.

With the help of Saleh and his supporters, the Zaid Shia Houthis took control of Sanaa and forced Hadi into exile. Then, last December, Reuters news agency reported that Saleh was ready to turn a new page in relations with Saudi-led coalition if they stopped their attacks on Yemen. The Houthis interpreted this statement as an unforgivable betrayal and assassinated him.

Saleh′s death has further complicated an already complex situation in Yemen: many are wondering whether the Houthis have gone too far and whether they can maintain their alliances.

Houthis growing stronger

Map of Yemen showing areas under Houthi control (source:; base map by
Devoid of all serious opposition: "with any remaining Saleh′s supporters hiding or living in exile (including his son Ahmed Ali Abdullah), it seems for now that no-one is in a position to seriously challenge the Houthis in Sanaa and the northwest. If the Houthis manage to sustain just a fraction of their alliances, it will be almost impossible to drive them out of Sanaa," writes Salacanin

Relying on force and intimidation to maintain their controI over Sanaa following Saleh′s assassination, the Houthis have targeted Saleh loyalists, either killing or arresting them. Whether such an excessive response will endanger the already fragile alliances between the Houthis and other tribal and military elites remains to be seen.

Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, notes that there has been a surprising degree of continuity so far, at least on the surface. It is also clear that the Houthis are not even close to being defeated or weakened. ″If anything, they have grown stronger, consolidating power and seizing the bulk of the Saleh network′s military installations and its weapons. The Houthis are unlikely to be eliminated any time soon,” he said.

Beth Grill, Senior Policy Analyst at RAND Corporation, on the other hand, does not believe that Saleh′s death has meant one side gaining an advantage over the other. What it may have done, however, is herald a new stage in the conflict and the ongoing deterioration of the country. This is likely to result in a realignment of interests among the complicated factions within Yemen and unfortunately an even more prolonged period of unrest.

With no serious opposition left and any remaining Saleh′s supporters hiding or living in exile (including his son Ahmed Ali Abdullah), it seems for now that no-one is in a position to seriously challenge the Houthis in Sanaa and the northwest. If the Houthis manage to sustain just a fraction of their alliances, it will be almost impossible to drive them out of Sanaa.

Recent events have however given the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) additional political cover for intensifying their attacks on northwest Yemen. Any success of Saudi and Emirati-backed forces – another alliance of tribal militias – strongly depends on mutual reliability and loyalty on the one hand and the potential disintegration of Houthi alliances on the other.

Additionally, recent attacks on Hadi′s government′s seat of power in the southern city of Aden by separatists allied to the United Arab Emirates, have exposed deep divisions within the coalition fighting the Houthis and the divergent views about Yemen′s future held by the two key foreign anti-Houthi players – Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Grill notes that it is also possible that the involvement of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the war has led to an increase in Iran′s support for the Houthis, although the degree of Iranian support for the Houthis is often overstated.

Yemenis wait next to empty gas bottles for supplies amid increasing shortages in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, on 9.11.2017 (photo: Getty Images/AFP/M. Huwais)
Civilians bearing the brunt: the war gripping Yemen has killed around 8,650 people since a Saudi-led military intervention in 2015, and brought the impoverished country to the brink of famine. The conflict is underscored by the regional rivalry between Iran – a supporter of Yemen's Shia Houthi rebels – and Saudi Arabia, which heads a nine-member coalition backing the president

Retreat but not defeat

Houthis are currently fighting on three fronts, stretching their core force, which numbers less than ten thousand men, to the limit. With some analysts suggesting that Emirati and Saudi-backed forces will try to take the port of Hodeidah in the near future, it is possible that the Houthis wil decide to withdraw from there and other strategic points.

Baron asserts that it is too soon to tell whether this will be a turning point in the war – and similarly far too soon to speak of the fall of Sanaa or Hodeidah. ″Ultimately, Houthi withdrawals have remained overwhelmingly in areas outside of their core areas.″

Although the Saudi-led coalition has achieved some limited success, their presence in Yemen, as well as popular resentment towards the Hadi government supported by them, is seen by many as foreign occupation and aggression, owing in particular to a brutal air campaign and economic blockade.

As long as this policy persists, Houthis will have every reason to portrait themselves as defenders of the country. Even if they withdraw from territories they hold at the moment to their homeland of Sa′da, analysts believe they could continue fighting for years.

Stasa Salacanin

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